On being a Know-it-all

I am a know-it-all. Both in the best and worst senses.

I became one as a kid. When all of my friends were reading Hardy Boys or Lord of the Rings, I was reading through Time Life books, learning how the universe worked — from the formation of suns right down to the reproductive systems in humans.

That was Mom’s doing, actually. She knew two things of my behaviour. First, that I read a lot. If we’d had the Encyclopedia Britannica, I would have read the whole thing, cover to cover. It’s probably a good thing that we didn’t, actually. The other thing was that I was nosey. I knew most of Mom’s good hiding spots for presents. (I’m sure Mom had a few others that I hadn’t even considered.) That was how Mom managed to sneak in a book that she was sure I would read.

The human body made up as robots, all geared to explain sexual reproduction to kids. Sounds like a weird concept. The first time that I read the book, it didn’t sink in. Something just didn’t make sense. When I reread the book a few months later (Mom had since then removed the book from the “hiding” place to the bookshelf), it stuck. It didn’t fit with my world view at the time, so required some additional processing.

My appetite for information, however, didn’t waiver. Mom got me another set of books — Time Life again — on Planet Earth. This covered pretty much every angle of Earth’s formation, behaviour, the things that make it up, and the things that live on it. Given that it’s Time Life, it’s not super-detailed, but it allowed me to get a decent grasp on plate tectonics.

In Grade Eight.

My English teacher believed that my parents had written the report rather than myself. At the time, I hadn’t understood the accusation, but would later realize what she was getting at.

Jeopardy bored me. My family had a habit of watching Wheel of Fortune (which I couldn’t stand, then or now) and Jeopardy over dinner. If I didn’t “win” the episode, I often came darn close. The Teen and College editions were laughable.

In university, I made it a habit of taking a variety of courses — for interests’ sake. I went in for Computer Science, came out with an English degree, and took courses from nearly every faculty along the way. Some because I needed courses other than my core ones, but others because they looked interesting. And I learned a lot.

The internet has been my biggest provider, despite the risk of inaccurate (or completely false) information that is sometimes to be found there. The Wikipedia is my latest obsession, and I regularly find myself consciously steering clear of it so I don’t become completely absorbed. That, combined with my 70 or so RSS feeds do a pretty decent job of filling my head full of often-useless crap.

And believe me, I keep it pretty full. It got so full that I eventually reached “informational mass”, the point at which a person is no longer able to keep this information bottled up and feels the urge to share it with everyone else. Often at annoying or poorly coordinated times. I became Cliff Claven.

Yes, my friends have called me that. To my face. In front of my family. Several times.

I can’t help it! I’m sure that psychiatry would be well-motivated to investigate this mental illness if they knew how many people are afflicted with know-it-all-ism. Just imagine how many people must require treatment for the sake of their sanity, their marriages, or even their jobs!

My job has been both a blessing and a curse for my know-it-all-ism. It requires me to know a lot to enable decision making, and affords me the chance to offer up information to help others. However, it means that I’ll frequently offer information that has nothing to do with the work at hand … such as the specific date the Romanov family was assassinated (16 July 1918) and that Anastasia didn’t survive as myth sometimes suggests.

One of my ex-project managers, Nancy, even called me on one of my factoids:

Geoff, do you actually know that, or do you just make yourself out to sound like you know?

I replied:

The best part is that you’ll never know for sure.

That’s the key to being a know-it-all: confidence. Doesn’t matter if you know something or not. You could be completely wrong about it. But you have to sound like you’re right, completely and without the possibility of fault. So long as someone is convinced that you know what you’re talking about (even if you’re way off), then you’re a trusted source.

Oh, and you have to speak your mind. Often out-of-turn. When no-one asked for it. That’s also a defining point of a know-it-all.

Take the case of A.J. Jacobs, for example. He dedicated himself to the task of reading the Encyclopedia Britannica end-to-end under the guise of becoming the smartest person in the world. And then he wrote a book about the journey.

I mention this because I’m reading the book. I’m only up to P, but so far it’s been a great book. Especially for me since I really identify with A.J. Or should that be sympathize? Well, I suppose it works both ways. It’s a great read, though. I’m not sure it’s for everyone, mind you, since you need to be a bit of a know-it-all to fully appreciate its humour.

Even A.J., having read the Britannica, admits that you can’t know everything, and a lot of what you “know” depends on how well you can convince others. Take his brother-in-law, Eric, who tried to convince his own wife that a waitress serving them was not from a small town hear where his wife was raised, but in Eastern Europe. Needless to say, A.J. was quite pleased when Eric go trounced. And A.J. learned the secret of being a know-it-all.

I try to manage my dissemination of knowledge, but I know full well that I periodically still sound like Cliff. Without the accent, that is. Or the postal carrier outfit.